Op-ed by Frank Rich
New York Times/Frank Rich—FOR all cable news’s efforts to inflate Election 2009 into a cliffhanger as riveting as Balloon Boy, ratings at MSNBC and CNN were flat Tuesday night. But not at Fox News, where the audience nearly doubled its usual prime-time average. That’s what happens when you have a thrilling story to tell, and what could be more thrilling than a revolution playing out in real time?
As Fox kept insisting, all eyes were glued on Doug Hoffman, the insurgent tea party candidate in New York’s 23rd Congressional District. A “tidal wave” was on its way, said Sean Hannity, and the right would soon “take back the Republican Party.” The race was not “even close,” Bill O’Reilly suggested to the pollster Scott Rasmussen, who didn’t disagree. When returns showed Hoffman trailing, the network’s resident genius, Karl Rove, knowingly reassured viewers that victory was in the bag, even if we’d have to stay up all night waiting for some slacker towns to tally their votes. (Posters note: see SNL spoof video)
Alas, the Dewey-beats-Truman reveries died shortly after midnight, when even Fox had to concede that the Democrat, Bill Owens, had triumphed in what had been Republican country since before Edison introduced the light bulb. For the far right, the thriller in Watertown was over except for the ludicrous morning-after spin that Hoffman’s loss was really a victory. For the Democrats, the excitement was just beginning. New York’s 23rd could be celebrated as a rare bright spot on a night when the party’s gubernatorial candidates lost in Virginia and New Jersey.
The Democrats’ celebration was also premature: Hoffman’s defeat is potentially more harmful to them than to the Republicans. Tuesday’s results may be useless as a predictor of 2010, but they are not without value as cautionary tales. And the most worrisome for Democrats were not in Virginia and New Jersey, but, paradoxically, in the New York contests where they performed relatively well. That includes the idiosyncratic New York City mayor’s race that few viewed as a bellwether of anything. It should be the most troubling of them all for President Obama’s cohort — even though neither Obama nor the national political parties were significant players in it.
But first let’s make a farewell accounting of the farce upstate. The reason why the Democratic victory in New York’s 23rd is a mixed blessing is simple: it increases the odds that the Republicans will not do Democrats the great favor of committing suicide between now and the next Election Day.
This race was a damaging setback for the hard right. Hoffman had the energetic support of Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh and Fox as well as big bucks from their political auxiliaries. Furthermore, Hoffman was running not only in a district that Rove himself described as “very Republican” but one that fits the demographics of the incredibly shrinking G.O.P. The 23rd is far whiter than America as a whole — 93 percent versus 74 — with tiny sprinklings of blacks, Hispanics and Asians. It has few immigrants. It’s rural. Its income and education levels are below the norm. Only if the district were situated in Dixie — or Utah — could it be a more perfect fit for the narrow American demographic where the McCain-Palin ticket had its sole romps last year.